Archive for January, 2009


Eat Local, or … Risk Death?

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

You hear news reports all the time about Salmonella outbreaks in spinach or some other product that probably originated halfway around the country or halfway around the world, but what exactly is it?

Well, it’s not pleasant.

From CDC.gov:

Salmonellosis is an infection with bacteria called Salmonella. Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most persons recover without treatment. However, in some persons, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. In these patients, the Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream, and then to other body sites and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness.

Last Friday, the New York Times reported on the latest headline-grabbing outbreak, this time from peanut butter that originated from a plant in Georgia.

From the New York Times:

For the nation’s grocery shoppers, the list of foods that might contain salmonella-tainted peanut butter has grown so quickly that keeping up seems daunting.

There are boxes of Valentine’s candy, frozen cookie dough and dog biscuits, chicken satay, peanut butter cups and stuffed celery.

Many of the products are sold as supermarket brands or under lesser-known national labels, but the list also has some of the more popular snacks on the shelf, like Little Debbie sandwich crackers, Famous Amos cookies and energy snacks from Clif Bar and NutriSystems.

The Food and Drug Administration has listed almost 130 products that have been recalled, but federal officials say the list is likely to grow as the investigation continues.

The large and varied list of products points up the many layers involved in producing packaged foods.

“I don’t think we can determine how many more” products will be recalled, Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the food and drug agency, told reporters on Wednesday.

Out of 486 cases of salmonella illness reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 people have died and 107 have been hospitalized. The most recent person sickened fell ill on Jan 8. Since it takes up to three weeks for cases to be reported to the disease agency, more are expected.

Consumers who have packages of food made with peanut products should check with the manufacturer by Web site or telephone and consult the F.D.A. recall list at fda.gov. Anyone who is not sure about a product should not eat it, federal officials said.

[...]

The plant also produced peanut paste, a more concentrated product used in candy, crackers and many other kinds of foods. Tracking how the paste travels through the food supply can be challenging, because several companies can be involved in making the final food. For example, one manufacturer might coat the paste in chocolate and make a peanut butter cup, which is then sold to another company that mixes it into ice cream that may or may not also contain peanut butter. A grocery chain might buy that ice cream and sell it under a private label.

Volume, wide distribution and a complicated supply chain are not the only issues. Salmonella can survive for a long time in a closed container of peanut butter.

“The piece that hasn’t come out yet is that peanut butter isn’t like spinach or ground beef because it has a really long shelf life,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

So remember: eat local. Contribute to the local economy, make an impact on CO2 emissions, avoid GM foods, and greatly reduce the risk of suffering a pretty lousy fate at the hands of an industrial food supply contaminant.

Read the whole Times article here.

New Studies Show Heightened Toxics Risks in Newborns: Enviroblog

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

From enviroblog (with a tip of the hat to DailyKos):

Newborn babies are more intensely exposed than previously documented to contamination by bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic estrogen and ubiquitous plastic component, according to two new studies published by Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
The studies offer new and serious insights into the harm caused by BPA, an industrial chemical found to disrupt the endocrine system, to diminish brain and neurological activity and to cause permanent damage to the reproductive systems of young lab animals.

In a pioneering December 10, 2008, study entitled “Exposure to Bisphenol A and other Phenols in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Premature Infants,” a team led by Antonia M. Calafat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the urine of 41 premature infants being treated in two Boston-area hospital neonatal intensive care units for the presence of BPA and other plastic chemicals.

The scientists detected BPA in the urine of every infant, with a median level of 28.6 micrograms per liter, nearly 8 times the median level (3.7 micrograms per liter) found by CDC in children 6 to 11 in the general population. The most alarming finding: the infant with the most severe exposure to BPA had a total urinary concentration of 946 micrograms per liter, 256 times greater than levels in older children tested by the CDC.

The preemies’ BPA readings are even more striking when compared to other CDC data showing that adults in the general U.S. population have a median BPA urine level of 2.7 micrograms per liter. By that standard, the infants’ median BPA level was 10 times that of adults; the child with the highest reading had a body burden 350 times that of the median adult level.

[...]

A second ground-breaking study, “Predicting Plasma Concentrations of Bisphenol A in Young Children,” published in EHP in November 2008 and authored by Canadian scientists Andrea N. Edginton of the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy and Len Ritter of the Department of Environmental Biology at the University of Guelph, used a mathematical model to predict that a newborn exposed to the same amount of BPA as an adult, per pound of body weight would have 11 times more of chemical in its bloodstream. The reason: an infant’s immature body is less able to detoxify and excrete the chemical, so some ingested BPA lingers longer in the baby’s blood.

[...]

Under the Bush administration, FDA leaders have resisted pressures from scientists and health and consumer advocates to order BPA removed from food packaging, including baby formula containers, baby bottles and kid-friendly foods such as canned soup, ravioli and vegetable. Last fall, the FDA Science Board issued a blistering critique of that stance, but the agency insisted that more study was necessary and delayed regulatory action. The agency has initiated a separate review of BPA exposures from medical devices, but so far, no results are in.
Read the whole article here.

Unf*ckers United: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Nau Clothing

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Richard Seireeni’s The Gort Cloud: The Invisible Force Powering Today’s Most Visible Brands showcases green businesses that are taking sustainability into the corporate world without compromising their ideals or turning into well-meaning money pits—sustainable enterprises looking at more than just the bottom line.

More information on the “gort cloud,” including the etymology of the name, can be found on its Wikipedia page.

The following is an excerpt from The Gort Cloud: The Invisible Force Powering Today’s Most Visible Brands. It has been adapted for the web.

Unfuckers United

The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Nau Clothing

THE CHALLENGE
The founders of Nau Clothing presented themselves with an enormous challenge. They set out to fashion a technical apparel company on a new model of corporate responsibility that would benefit not only stakeholders but also the community and the world at large. In doing so, they would buck conventional wisdom on how and why to establish a new clothing line in a notoriously difficult market.

THE SOLUTION
Instead of hiring an ad agency to hype its brand, Nau Clothing built integrity into the product, the distribution system, and the corporate blueprint itself. The result was greater differentiation of product and brand, loads of free press, and an image of integrity that was appealing and spread virally among Nau’s employees, investors, and core customers. How did it do this?

Nau differentiated itself in a crowded market by building a brand on the foundation of quality, profitability, and sustainability. By targeting key audiences with a message of integrity, Nau built a small but loyal following across multiple fashion segments: sports enthusiasts, fashionistas, and the eco-conscious.

Ahead of its time? Yes. Which may have contributed to the financing problems that forced Nau to close in spring 2008 — only to be resurrected by an angel investor just six weeks later. Innovation was both a risk and ultimately an asset that kept the firm going.

All members of the Nau team were aware of the power of the interconnected green community to help them develop product and get the word out to core customers. Nau was intertwined in the Gort Cloud in innumerable ways, including very direct outreach through its Web site; its blog, called the Thought Kitchen; a digital storytelling venue called the Collective; its monthly digital newsletter, Off the Grid; and its Partners for Change sponsorship program. In fact, it was the trendspotters, bloggers, and green news sites within the Gort Cloud that fairly rang with mourning in the days after Nau’s thankfully brief closing.

The power of the company’s brand image, goodwill, and loyal following proved to be a critical asset in riding out this rough patch.

Reinventing a fashion business, from the earth up.

Mark Galbraith, then a top product designer at Patagonia, remembers the autumn 2004 call from Eric Reynolds, a founder of the outdoor gear manufacturer Marmot, asking him to lunch. Galbraith knew Reynolds, but not well.

The sushi lunch lasted all afternoon and turned into a dinner of more sushi and sake. The men discussed Reynolds’s view that the modern corporation, an entity with great opportunity to do good, was instead often doing great damage. A student of Robert Hinkley’s writings on corporate social responsibility, Reynolds explained that he was determined to found a corporation on a business model that would be radically different, a corporation that would give back, that would be responsible not just to the shareholders but to the whole planet. Reynolds was betting on his knowledge of his customers, who were often outdoor sports enthusiasts with grave concerns for the health of the planet. He was betting that there was room for one more active sportswear maker, one with a mission to do it better.

He was planning to launch the new corporate model in one of the toughest industries of all — fashion. He was taking on this competitive and margin-driven business with a new set of rules, rules that he believed would attract customers who love style and performance as much as they love the earth. Reynolds was doing what I recommend as a brand consultant: starting with a core audience and building an offer around that audience. With focus and clarity, a business can stand out and grow organically.

When Reynolds asked Galbraith to review the business plan, dropping it on the table as he rose to go to the restroom, Galbraith saw that the heading stated the company’s name, UTW, but gave no indication of what the acronym represented. He had his answer when Reynolds returned to the table wearing a Michael Franti T-shirt that boldly declared unfuck the world.

“He was telling me what the business was about,” says Galbraith, who was to become UTW’s vice president of product design. “He was saying, ‘I’d like you to be a fellow unfucker.’”

UTW’s name eventually changed to Nau, pronounced now, which is Maori for “welcome, come in.” Nau hoped to unfuck the world in general, and the fashion business in particular. The firm broke considerable new ground before it died and was subsequently resurrected in 2008, and that is why there is much to learn in Nau’s story.

Building an earth-friendly brand experience.

Entering the Nau store in Bridgeport Village, south of Portland, you immediately sensed that there was something different going on. The design was sparse, the clothing racks uncluttered. Unique aluminum forms functioned as display tables, and the checkout island dominated the center of the space. Like the kitchen counter in a designer loft, this is where everyone congregated.

Here, at one of the nine stores Nau had opened by July 2008, almost everything was produced from recycled materials, from the hip and styled garments to the graphics made out of recycled cardboard to the display hangers created from recycled plastic. Even the mannequins, traditionally made out of nonrecyclable fiberglass, were resin-based and could be recycled.

“We went through every single element of the store from a sustainability point of view,” explains Ian Yolles, Nau’s vice president of brand communications. “We needed to function as a retail environment, but we also needed a design sensibility that would reflect the [differentiating attributes of the] brand.” Working with local Portland architects Skylab Design, Nau also brought in Green Building Services to help it conform to LEED standards in building this retail showcase, which is arguably the most important touchpoint between an apparel brand and its customers.

The Nau stores turned out to be more than a retail experience. They functioned as an immersive tool that introduced first-time customers to the brand’s philosophy, commitment, and sense of style. The stores, along with the Web site, provided copious information about mission, sourcing, manufacturing, care, and reuse, all of which instilled knowledge and brand loyalty. Many companies would love to cultivate this level of loyalty but can’t because their attention is too focused on profits, at the expense of ideals.

“Our goal was not to have a sustainable aesthetic so much as a sustainable concept,” says Jeff Kovel, the founding architect of Skylab, who views the world of retail rollouts as a throwaway culture. “Stores come into a vanilla shell, rip it out, and start over. They’re constantly putting fixtures in, tearing them down, and throwing them away. We thought a lot about how we could change that whole process rather than just use some green materials.”

The solution: a prefabricated, component-based environment with fully reusable fixtures that are built off-site, shipped in a flat pack, and assembled on-site in the existing store shell. “We want to be provocative, we want to catch people’s attention,” Galbraith explains. “You can be environmentally friendly, but you can also be high-performance. You can be all organic, but you’re not some crunchy burlap bag all in undyed white heading out to the office. You can be styled and look great.” All of this came through in the stores.

Differentiating with style, function, and sustainability in a saturated market.

“There’s been very little growth in the outdoor apparel industry,” explains Nau CEO Chris Van Dyke. “So there’s really little room for somebody new. Even with a good product. Unless you’re doing something really new.” This warning comes despite the fact that the total value of US-made apparel is around $16 billion and US imports of clothing are around $72 billion, according to Plunkett Research in 2006. The demand for clothing in the United States is huge, but the market is hugely competitive.

Van Dyke worked for many years at Nike and Patagonia after his earlier career in the legal profession, during which he was elected district attorney in Salem, Oregon, at the age of twenty-nine. Bearing a striking resemblance in looks as well as charm to his father, actor Dick Van Dyke, he came out of a “sailing-and-surfing” retirement to work for Nau.

“We still want to appeal to the outdoor market customers, ’cause that’s kind of our roots, so our performance focus is there,” said Van Dyke when the company was still trying to make a go of it. But, he explained, Nau brings “this element of beauty into it, this design. We include pieces you could wear in New York City to go out to dinner, but are waterproof and breathable and stretch. So you combine this very urban fashion design aesthetic with high performance. And no one’s done that in this way.”

Indeed, Nau realized that sophisticated activewear customers also want high style. They’ll go for that more fitted, slightly awkward look because it’s cool and it works technically. Fashion pundits have compared Nau to a fusion of Patagonia and Prada. But the key point the Nau folks didn’t miss is that branding and marketing clothing comes down to the clothes themselves. Cool and distinctive clothes are their own best promotion, garnering free media exposure in channels that are respected and trusted by customers — like the Internet trendspotters, among whom Nau is a favorite.

“A lot of customers out there have no idea that a sustainable clothing line could look this good or perform this well,” Galbraith said of his line. “We want to totally exceed their expectations by introducing them to something that they don’t even know exists.” This comment contains a cloud of concern. Educating customers to a new category takes energy away from selling the goods.

“If somebody walks by and knows nothing about sustainability, they’d look at this stuff and go, wow, that’s beautiful, they’d be quickly compelled to want the product,” he continued. “And when you tell them, ‘Hey, guess what?’ And you went down the list of everything, from how we’re set up, to our prices, to what it’s made of, what happens to our product at the end of its life, what we are giving back as a company . . . all these things, [they’d] be like, ‘You’re kidding!’”

Even the design of the company logo was well thought out in terms of functionality. The simple Nau logo is an ambigram, a word that reads the same when rotated 180 degrees. It’s a nice touch for clothing, which is often viewed from different angles.

So the driver of preference, the thing that causes a customer to buy this over that, was Nau’s style; but the extra kicker was that it was ecofriendly and functional. It might not make a difference in an individual purchase, but it created goodwill and cemented customers to the brand once they chose Nau.


Photo courtesy of Nau.com.

WATCH: Matthew Stein on Outside the Box

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Matthew Stein, author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency, spoke to Alex Kansary of Outside the Box for a Web-only video interview encompassing predictions for the new year, the emergency survival kit, and what it will take to survive in this brave new world.

Visit Outside the Box.

James Lovelock on Saving Ourselves from Climate Change: “Not a Hope in Hell”

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Scientist James Lovelock, whose work led to a global CFC ban that probably saved the ozone layer, is not an optimist. To put it another way, I would venture to say that some of his predictions would give optimists nightmares.

Lovelock, creator of the Gaia hypothesis, sees a gigantic self-induced cull heading for mankind within the coming century that will wipe out most of humanity.

Man, is that a depressing thought. Can we do anything about it?

In a word? No.

Whether you agree or not, his theories deserve some consideration. So let’s take a deep breath, and for a few minutes let us consider the possibility that maybe we can’t save the world. Lovelock talks to the aptly named Gaia Vince of New Scientist to give us all a healthy dose of scientific buzz-harshing and bumming-out.

PS: Don’t shoot the messenger.

Courtesy of New Scientist:

Your work on atmospheric chlorofluorocarbons led eventually to a global CFC ban that saved us from ozone-layer depletion. Do we have time to do a similar thing with carbon emissions to save ourselves from climate change?

Not a hope in hell. Most of the “green” stuff is verging on a gigantic scam. Carbon trading, with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It’s not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it’ll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning. I am not against renewable energy, but to spoil all the decent countryside in the UK with wind farms is driving me mad. It’s absolutely unnecessary, and it takes 2500 square kilometres to produce a gigawatt – that’s an awful lot of countryside.

What about work to sequester carbon dioxide?

That is a waste of time. It’s a crazy idea – and dangerous. It would take so long and use so much energy that it will not be done.

Do you still advocate nuclear power as a solution to climate change?

It is a way for the UK to solve its energy problems, but it is not a global cure for climate change. It is too late for emissions reduction measures.

So are we doomed?

There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.

Would it make enough of a difference?

Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.

Do you think we will survive?

I’m an optimistic pessimist. I think it’s wrong to assume we’ll survive 2 °C of warming: there are already too many people on Earth. At 4 °C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesised it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90 per cent. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It’s happening again.

I don’t think humans react fast enough or are clever enough to handle what’s coming up. Kyoto was 11 years ago. Virtually nothing’s been done except endless talk and meetings.

It’s a depressing outlook.

Not necessarily. I don’t think 9 billion is better than 1 billion. I see humans as rather like the first photosynthesisers, which when they first appeared on the planet caused enormous damage by releasing oxygen – a nasty, poisonous gas. It took a long time, but it turned out in the end to be of enormous benefit. I look on humans in much the same light. For the first time in its 3.5 billion years of existence, the planet has an intelligent, communicating species that can consider the whole system and even do things about it. They are not yet bright enough, they have still to evolve quite a way, but they could become a very positive contributor to planetary welfare.

Read the whole article here.

Iconoclastic Farmer Joel Salatin: “We actually care if the cows are happy”

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Called “the high priest of the pasture” by The New York Times, Joel Salatin, author of Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front, is a maverick farmer. He doesn’t believe in pesticides. He doesn’t buy into the authority of the USDA. And he cares if his animals are happy.

In this article from the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard, Joe McCully interviews Salatin to find out why he left journalism, why he won’t ship food to anyone outside of his “Bio Region,” and what the secret is behind eggs that “jump up and slap you in the face.”

This past summer, I drove through the Shenandoah Valley on my way to Staunton, Va., and Polyface Farm, made famous in Michael Pollan’s best-seller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Polyface Farm sits on 550 acres, of which 100 is open land, the rest wooded. The man in charge is Joel Salatin, self-described “lunatic farmer,” and arguably the most outspoken opponent of the government’s management and control of the food supply system in America.

[...]

I ask Salatin what kind of farmer he is.

“I’m a lunatic farmer, that’s my new catch phrase,” he says with a grin. “I have a Ph.D. That stands for Post Hole Digger.”

He explains that it means he does everything counter to industrial Wall Street and USDA structured stuff.

Salatin talks about his farm animals the same way someone would describe their pets.

“We like animals. We ask, ‘Can the cow display its cowness?’ ” he says. “To the government, livestock are just a pile of inanimate protoplasm. Some may call it sissy farming, thinking this kind of farming is effeminate. We actually care if the cows are happy. This kind of farming is very sensitive.”

[...]

As my interview with Salatin ends, I purchase a dozen eggs and ask where I can buy the chicken, since Polyface sells chickens only on Friday, after the birds are butchered. He gives us a list of local stores carrying his products and we depart to walk around the farm.

My son comments on the lack of insects, a sign of a well-maintained and clean farm. We spot the “eggmobile” in a distant, grassy field. The chickens become agitated as we approach, so we keep our distance. As each paddock becomes available, the portable chicken house is moved and the chickens revel in the new surroundings. The cattle departed days earlier but their manure has remained, giving the chickens the opportunity to eat the insect larvae and parasites left. The chickens enjoy the feast, providing the protein that makes their eggs unusually flavorful. A cycle of happy animals.

We discover the pigs, sunning themselves in the warm Virginia sun. They ignore us and we decide it’s time to head home.

[...]

Salatin boasted that when restaurant chefs try his eggs they always become customers, and I can see why. The eggs tasted fresher and creamier than any eggs I’ve ever eaten. Only fresh eggs from a friend’s farm on Lopez Island in Puget Sound came close to these in flavor. As Salatin says, “My eggs just jump up and slap you in the face.”

It’s easy to forget how wonderful local, fresh foods taste; easy to forget peaches are seasonal when we can purchase them year-round. Salatin may be labeled a character, a food preacher or even a lunatic farmer; however, he represents something much greater. The mission statement of Polyface Farm says it best: “To develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world.”

Read the whole article here.

A Citizen-Powered Energy Grid in 2009: A Case Study in Geothermal

Monday, January 26th, 2009

The following is an excerpt from The Citizen-Powered Energy Handbook: Community Solutions to a Global Crisis by Greg Pahl. It has been adapted for the web.

Luther College, located in the small northeast Iowa town of Decorah, has two examples of successful, closed-loop, geothermal heat-pump systems. One is located in Baker Village, a student housing complex, and the other is in the college’s striking new Center for the Arts. Interest in geothermal systems on campus was initiated by a student environmental group, and eventually resulted in the installation of a 72-ton system in the 33,000- square-foot Baker Village complex. A large group of heat pumps ranging in size from 2.5 tons up to 5 tons located in various parts of the complex are connected via underground plastic piping to 88 vertical closed loops in 150-foot-deep holes bored in the ground. The closed loops are filled with a food-grade, biodegradable antifreeze solution that circulates and acts as the heat transfer medium. The two-story complex was opened in 1999, and provides housing for approximately one hundred students.

The Baker Village system was so successful that the college decided to use geothermal in its new Center for the Arts as well. Opened in April 2003, the two-level, 60,000-square-foot Center for the Arts is home to the college’s art and theatre/dance departments, and also contains a 225-seat theater, classrooms, a computer lab, darkroom, faculty offices, two art galleries, and a café. The 248-ton geothermal system includes 52 two-speed heatpump units ranging from 1 to 15 tons, connected to 86 wells bored to a depth of 300 feet. This geothermal heating and cooling system was the first to be installed in an academic building in Iowa. Although the system was initially more expensive to install than conventional heating and cooling systems, the college expects to recover the added investment in less than five years on account of lower operating and maintenance expenses.

“The two geothermal buildings have been part of an overall energy audit and conservation project that has been conducted by the college over the past two years,” says Jerry Johnson, the college’s director of public information. “Those buildings have played a major part in the reduction of the college’s energy use by around 12 percent compared to two years ago. Obviously, we’re very pleased with the performance of the geothermal systems in those buildings.” There have been no major operational problems with either system, and the transition for the college’s facilities staff was simple and easy, according to Johnson. “Incorporation of the Center for the Arts into the main campus in conjunction with our central heating system ent quite smoothly,” he says. “Anyone who has a multiple-facility complex like ours who is wondering how they would incorporate a system like this needs to know that it was not as challenging as they might think.”

Founded in 1861 by Norwegian immigrants, Luther is a four-year college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The college offers a liberal arts education leading to the bachelor of arts degree in sixty majors and preprofessional programs for its 2,600 students. Additional geothermal systems are likely at Luther. “If the college puts up any buildings in the future, I am certain that geothermal will be part of the design and operation of those buildings,” Johnson continues. “The college is currently conducting a capital campaign to build a new science building, and although the plans are not complete, I am sure geothermal will be part of that project too. We’ve been very happy with these systems.”

—–

An update from Luther College on its energy usage:

Luther College recently released the results of a carbon footprint analysis for the 2007-08 academic year. The data shows that Luther has reduced its campus carbon footprint by 15 percent.

The college’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked at 20,927 metric tons in the 2003-04 academic year. These emissions were reduced to 17,672 metric tons in 2007-08, primarily through a $1.5 million investment in energy efficiency.

The energy savings from these energy efficiency measures are enabling Luther to pay back this investment in less than seven years.

Alternatives to Electric Compressor Refrigeration?

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Your refrigerator is one of the largest consumers of energy in your home. In an average home, refrigeration burns 125 watts per hour1. You can, of course, take steps to reduce the amount of electricity your refrigerator uses—by shag carpeting it, for example. But why not replace your fridge with something entirely renewable? I mean, as Derrick Jensen points out in this video, no civilization that consumes resources is sustainable.

Stephen and Rebekah Hren, in their book The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit, provide this brief exploration into the use of an alternative refrigeration technology: Absorption Refrigerators.

An alternative method of refrigeration from the standard compressor fridge is what is known as a gas-absorption refrigerator. Typical fridges take heat out of the air in the fridge using a liquid with a very low boiling point, such as freon. By putting freon under pressure with the compressor, the fridge converts the gas into a liquid at a very cold temperature. As the liquid evaporates into a gas, it pulls heat out of the air in the fridge and freezer. This gas is then compressed again and the cycle starts over.

Absorption refrigerators also cool by evaporation, except they use ammonia trapped in a hydrogen environment. After the ammonia evaporates, drawing heat out of the air, it combines with the hydrogen to form water. Heat is then used to boil the ammonia off the water and return it to the hydrogen environment. Propane refrigerators, commonly found in recreational vehicles, boats, and some off-grid homes, operate on the same principles. The main difference in the ammonia versions is that the cycle is powered by a source of heat, such as solar power or waste heat, instead of an electric generator or battery.

Solar-powered gas-absorption refrigerators have been around for a quarter-century or so, most homemade by skilled tinkerers. A few have been mass-produced. Fridges of this type are often referred to as intermittent solar ammonia-water absorption cycle, or ISAAC, refrigerators. The idea is intriguing because the fridge has no moving parts and, theoretically, nothing to wear out, giving it a potential life span well beyond that of an electric compressor refrigerator. The main hurdle is the ammonia, which is poisonous if handled improperly and is therefore difficult to obtain and work with and is probably not suitable for residential use. It is possible to use other refrigerants. Energy Concepts is a company based in Maryland that makes solar-powered absorption refrigerators, although only for larger industrial customers.

If you have an innovative method for reducing the energy used for refrigeration in your home, we want to hear about it!

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Hunting After the Crash: How To Make Your Own Bow and F’n Arrow…

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

If the teetering economy collapses and food becomes scarce, how will you eat? Sure, you can farm. Sure, you can fish. But my oh my, those are so boring! You must be thinking that there’s got to be a more exciting way to feed your family. Well, what’s more badass than hunting for food using a bow and arrow you made yourself? Nothing. That’s what.

So don’t wait for the collapse when good bow and arrow making materials may be at a premium. Prepare yourself now by following these instructions from Mat Stein, author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency.

The following is an excerpt from When Technology Fails. It has been adapted for the web.

The bow and arrow is probably the most effective of the traditional hunting weapons, and is not too difficult to make. Seasoned, resilient, long-grained woods are best for bow making. English longbows were traditionally made from yew trees, but fir, cedar, hickory, juniper, oak, white elm, birch, willow, hemlock, maple, and alder will usually do. “Green” wood bows tend to lose their strength or crack after a couple weeks, needing replacement. Traditional crafting of bows often extended for over a year, beginning with the careful selection and curing of wood for the stave.

Bow

For the short-term, crude bows of many different green woods will suffice. For durable bows, select strong, straight, resilient, knot-free young saplings such as yew, greasewood, ironwood, hickory, or ash. For the bow stave, select one or two supple limbs, about 1½ to 2 inches thick in the middle, and free of knots and branches. Fire-killed standing wood has already been seasoned. Test the flex of your chosen wood and discard if it shows any signs of cracking. Depending on the stiffness and spring of the wood, either shave flats in the center section of each stave and fasten two curved staves together for a double bow (see Figure 6-35) or shape the stave so that it is about 2 inches thick at the handle, tapering uniformly to 5⁄8 inch thick at the ends (see Figure 6-36). Notch the ends for the bowstring. Repeatedly greasing and heating a carved bow in front of the fire over a period of several days will deter cracking and make it more durable. The best strings are made from sinew (see Chapter 10 on textiles) or rawhide, but you can use any strong string or make your own cordage from animal fur, hair, or plant fibers (see Chapter 4). Rather than twisting extra-thick clusters of plant fibers, stronger bowstrings are made by braiding or twisting together multiple strands of finer cordage to make thicker cordage. When not in use, loosen the bowstring to save the bow’s power. Once a bow has lost its power, throw it away and make another one. A cloth or piece of leather strapped to the inside of your forearm can help prevent chafing from the bowstring.

Arrows

Any straight wood will do for arrows, but birch and willow sucker branches sprouting from the base of tree trunks work particularly well. Make arrows about ¼ inch in diameter and the length of your arm. Notch one end for the bowstring to catch on (the “nock”). Some type of fletching should be attached about 2 to 3 inches in front of the nock to stabilize the arrow and ensure a reasonably straight and long-distance flight. Split feathers work best for fletching, but paper, cloth, or even split leaves will do. Attach three or four feathers to the shaft. The simplest arrowhead is a sharpened and flame-hardened wooden point. For larger game and more durability, fashion arrowheads from sheet metal, stone, or bone (see Chapter 4 for basic flintknapping). Attach the arrowheads and fletching to the arrow shaft using fine cordage. Wet sinew works best, because it shrinks and sticks to itself as it dries. Seal the binding with boiled pine pitch to prevent unraveling.

Five Ways to Cut Carbon While Cooking

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

There are many ways to decrease your carbon footprint by changing WHAT you cook for dinner: eat less meat, use local vegetables, grow your own, etc. But there are also many ways to decrease your carbon footprint by changing HOW you cook your dinner. Jon Clift and Amanda Cuthbert, authors of Energy: Use Less—Save More, devote an entire section of their book to reducing energy usage in the kitchen. Here are some of their suggestions.

Five Tips for Cutting Energy Usage in the Kitchen

  1. If you are cooking with a saucepan, turn down the heat when it comes to a boil. You don’t need as much heat to keep a pot boiling as you do to get it to a boil, and the contents will cook just as quickly.
  2. ‘Slow cookers’ are a really cheap way of cooking. The cooker gently simmers away all day, using little more power than a conventional light bulb.
  3. Plan ahead: get ready-made meals out of the freezer early enough for them to defrost without using energy.
  4. Cook two days’ meals at once in the oven and utilize the space. Reheating will use less energy than starting from scratch on day two.
  5. Convection ovens warm up more quickly, distribute the heat more evenly, and use about 20% less electricity than a conventional oven.

For more great tips, follow @greentweet on Twitter.

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